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What is it about Apple computers and women? You know what I’m talking about: iLust. The envy of all things Mac. Proving that tech and design belong together, unlike fish and bicycles. But if women love using technology so much, why are they not reaching dizzying heights in tech careers?

The answer may lie not just in Apple’s design, but also in its designers. In 1984, my primary school in rural Australia got its first computer: an Apple II. There was only one computer, so students took turns to play games and learn how to use Logo. Male students, that is. Girls were not allotted time to learn to how to use Logo, but we could play games on it at lunchtime. Not that we did much of that – it required waiting your turn in the library while everyone else ran around in the sunshine outside.

My little sister and I fulfilled the desire for technology by building pretend computers from cardboard boxes at home. I made my first flowchart at age 10, mapping out a choose-your-own-adventure style game that we played out with drawings taped to a tissue-box monitor. And so my child-brain was imprinted with the desire for technology, epitomised by that first Apple II.

Twenty seven years later, after committed relationships with PCs and Palms have ended, my iPad is replacing my brain, managing my schedule and complex communications. iOS 5 and Siri are likely to further my reliance on technology, as I quit typing and swiping in favour of dictation and voice commands. But that’s OK if it frees up my mental capacity for creative thinking, rather than task completion. What I’ve been thinking about today is what Steve Jobs has contributed to women’s understanding and use of technology, and what we should make of that shift.

Prior to the Apple’s revolutionary design, computers were even more of a male domain than they are today. The “uninnovative beige boxes” (to quote Jobs talking about Dell) made by pre-iMac PC companies were all about linear thinking and mathematical understanding. There was no obvious way of applying the functions they could perform to the tasks that most women needed to complete, and there was no room for the multithread, visual thinking style that so many women learn from the feminine roles they are traditionally assigned. I remember writing a program in 1989 that allowed the user to input a list of ingredients, and return a selection of recipes using those ingredients. I shudder at the memory of that monochrome, text-based world.

But that’s what women do with computers, if given a chance: they look for a way to apply the technology to the work that they do. By bringing computers into the home, with a design that invited people with no tech experience to play, Apple made it possible for women to participate in the computing world as users. Some of those users have gone on to become designers and creators in the tech world. I am amazed at what those women create, with the multithread, object-oriented, very visual technology we have today. I just wish there were more of them!

Perhaps it was Steve Jobs’ open-minded exploration of ideas that led to a more gender-equitable computer design. But what happens to all those girls and women who want to move from Apple tech user to Apple tech creator to Apple tech executive? The post-Steve Jobs executive team at Apple is 100% male. The Board of Directors at Apple has seven men and just one woman: the CEO of cosmetics company Avon. A 2010 study by UC Davis at University of California found that Apple had no women in high-paid executive roles. Diana Ryall was Managing Director at Apple Australia until 2001, but I can’t find anything on women in Apple Australia management roles since then. It seems that Apple, as a corporation, suffers from the same barriers to women’s participation in management as so many other tech companies, both in the US and in Australia.

An open-minded man in a position of power is no guarantee that a company’s management will become gender balanced, even if the company’s products are loved equally by men and women. Just as having a female Prime Minister is no guarantee that Australian women will be better respected in Australian society, or a woman as CEO of a major bank is no guarantee that Australian women will have a more equitable share of assets or income.

It is up to all of us to ensure that girls and women continue to make in-roads in working with technology, not just in using it. Having a smartphone is all well and good, and the number of women graduating from Australian universities with science and tech qualifications is fantastic. But what women really need are the opportunities to pursue careers in technology’s upper levels, just as men do. The priority theme at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women session in 2010 was:

Access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work. If we’re serious about this, then we need to redress the balance in the workplace for women working in science and technology.

Events like the Women in Science and Engineering Summit held in Canberra in April 2011 have identified some of the barriers to women progressing in a tech career, such as the effect that maternity leave has on how research grant applications are assessed. The Haecksen mini-conf at linux.conf.au features women speakers on tech topics, demonstrating that women can and do have good tech ideas to share. There are a number of difficulties for women who want to rise to the top in tech companies, such as the long hours that too many coders are expected to work, and constant learning to keep up with the fast pace of technology change. These two factors combine to make maternity leave a career killer for women who want to code, while men who want to participate fully in family life find it hard to fit it around their work hours. And of course, the subconscious misconception that technological ability is not a feminine trait.

I do lament the lack of women in Apple’s highest ranks, while men are everywhere in the tech world. I hope that the rising numbers of women in tech generally, and a cultural shift in the roles of both men and women, will give rise to a future where we celebrate how ordinary it is to see women everywhere in the tech world. But it will only happen if we are committed to seeing it through.

By Emma Davidson

(Image credit: 1.)

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